The Corner Is HB's New Hot Spot
If you walked into the Corner cold, you'd swear the place was a dive bar. It's barely lit or decorated, and it reeks of spilled beer and alcohol. Reveling in the dank and without so much as a single painting or houseplant, even Springfield's Moe's Tavern has more character. You wouldn't know from looking at it that Chris Grodach, its owner/chef, once worked at the Loft at the Montage and was the opening cook at Kimera in Irvine—restaurants whose reputation for ambiance precedes them.
In an interview for our Stick a Fork In It blog, Grodach admitted he's not very happy with the décor and hopes it will someday change to more of "an Americana, beachy, vintage feel." But really, you shouldn't be going to the Corner for any other reason than to sip the well-made cocktails and nibble on the food he describes as "eclectic eats," cuisine that will cost a fraction of what the Montage and Kimera charge. It will, in fact, be the least amount of money you'll ever spend to be fed by a French Laundry alum. A majority of the plates are $8 to $9, while the entrées hover in the $15 range. There's also an option to add side items for two bucks apiece. The roasted mushrooms, crusted with a sprinkle of parmesan, are so generous they're practically a meal in themselves, as are the grilled zucchini coins made brisk by a squeeze of lemon and dash of basil.
The best bites are often the ones you expect to be pedestrian. A typical TGI McFunsters appetizer of spinach-and-artichoke dip is served here with the skull-rattling crunch of house-fried chips, the dip itself Zamboni-flat. As with a crème brûlée, it occupies just a few millimeters' depth, so the hot cast-iron skillet keeps the cheesiness at a near-liquid state until you scoop. If you can get here before 7 p.m., there are remarkably good meatball sliders on the Happy Hour menu for $1.75 each, with sturdy bread hugging thick, cheese-draped, Italian-style meatloaf. Perhaps the greater surprise is how the derivative-sounding potato taco is an excellent study in how well a freshly fried, thick taco shell, mashed potatoes and grated white Cheddar go together. An ahi tuna tartare comes in chunks as big as poke, coated in remoulade, served on three bite-sized corn tortilla disks and smartly topped with grilled jalapeño slices. It will be the most refreshing thing you'll have all night and much better than the limoncello vinaigrette-dressed salad of watermelon, feta, avocado and arugula, which never really comes together.
Grodach's other dishes have an Asian bent, but with a lot of leeway given for authenticity. His version of ssam is simply called Korean barbecue chicken and consists of not much more than lightly marinated strips of grilled white meat to be wrapped in butter lettuce cups and heaped with such "nontraditional" accompaniments as avocado, cucumbers, scallions and jalapeños before a creamy cilantro-lime dressing gets drizzled. He puts out some house-made garlic noodles in Asian soup bowls with belts of pasta as wide as ticker tape tangling up the bok choy and chorizo. The thin, Alfredo-like sauce stings the back of the throat with the wincing, wasabi potency of raw garlic.
A fried-bologna Croque Madame topped with a yolk-dribbling fried egg and covered in melted cheese tastes like a down-market eggs Benedict and would've been too rich if it weren't for the swipe of Sriracha applied to the plate. But the baked creamed-corn crock pot that comes with a gigantic slab of barbecued pork shoulder is better than the meat itself, the corn kernels still sweet, bursting with juice and gilded in a crispy breadcrumb topping that leads to instant addiction.
But the item that everybody will ask about is Grodach's "48-Hour-Fries." The effort undertaken to make these potatoes seems Thomas Keller-esque in its meticulousness. They're soaked in water overnight to wash away all surface starch, then slow-poached in saltwater, dried with fans, frozen stiff and, finally, fried to order. It would be a disappointment if they ended up tasting the same as any old French fry—and they don't. The crust has a crunchy, grainy texture as if it were coated in microscopic sugar crystals. But the interior texture isn't fluffy like mashed potatoes; it tastes similar to the root itself, somewhat firm and more vegetal than starchy. Even if the process is more impressive than the product, it does accomplish one important thing: sending the message that Grodach isn't one to take the easy way out, and this is no dive bar.
This review appeared in print as "In This Corner: Former Kimera chef and French Laundry alum Chris Grodach opens his own restaurant."
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